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Challenges before South Asian migrant workers

08 January 2013 - Labour pacts are an important tool to protect the migrant workers in alien lands‚ which reduces their risks. The lack of labour pacts with worker-receiving countries has led to about 11.9 million South Asian migrant workers falling in trouble in work places and destination countries.

Worker-sending countries involved in the Colombo Process (CP) have adopted legal and policy mechanisms to control undocumented migrations. Five nations of the South Asia—Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka— have been sending workers abroad, mainly Gulf countries— Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. Such immigration had started in the 1970s when the unemployed South Asian youths started searching for jobs outside their national boundaries. The current phase of strong-state action to curb undocumented migration began in 2005, as per a ministerial decision of CP countries held in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

According to Migration Policy Institute, CP countries targeted four sectors of intervention, including controlling undocumented migrant workers, protecting their rights and supporting their well-being. All 11 countries involved in CP formulated new laws and policies, and formed dedicated government bodies to govern workers’ migration. Their efforts, however, were not very much centered on getting international cooperation to streamline workers’ migration. Only a few countries developed welfare plans to support migrant workers and their families. 

For instance, Nepal formulated and enforced the Foreign Employment Act to regulate workers’ migration, and established the Foreign Employment Promotion Board, in 2007, to explore new job markets and conduct welfare activities. Similarly, the Foreign Employment Tribunal was established to deal with cases related to the outsourcing sector. Like Nepal, other South Asian countries also achieved the first two targets of enforcing the new laws, policies and forming separate government agencies to deal with the outsourcing business, but failed to meet the target.

Nepal has signed labour pacts with five migrant worker receiving countries. Among them Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain are the major job destinations in the Persian Gulf. Nepal does not have any labour pact or bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia, the job market for over 4,00,000 Nepalis, to protect them. Other countries have labour pacts with one or the other destination country.

Labour pact is an important tool to protect the migrant workers in alien lands, which reduces their risks. The lack of labour pacts with worker-receiving countries has led to about 11.9 million South Asian migrant workers falling in trouble in work places and destination countries. The workers have been cheated in wages, exploited and forced to work for long hours. In the case of housemaids, they have suffered from domestic violence or even becoming victims of rape by the employers or their family members. For example, UN Women estimated that about 2,800 Nepali housemaids were rescued from extreme difficult situations, 81 housemaids returned pregnant and 25 with a child in their lap, in the last year and a half. India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh also have similar stories of exploitation, but to a lesser extent.

Inefficient protection measures at home and abroad have forced the governments to restrict workers’ outflow. South Asian countries have discouraged women from household jobs abroad by implementing the age limit. For women migrant workers, Nepal and India have fixed the minimum age limit of 30, while Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have imposed restrictions on women below 25 and 23 years respectively to join domestic help’s job in the Gulf countries. The state bureaucracies have been increasingly oriented to control powerless poor people with special attention on women migration. 

The age limit has been creating problems to Nepal due to its porous boarder with India. Nepali women below 30 are adopting undocumented migration via India. An estimated 60-70 Nepali women are reaching Gulf-based job market every day using Indian routes, and are assisted in this by human trafficking networks. The geo-political situation of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have helped them control such outflow of women migrant workers. However, Bangladeshi men had used Nepal as a transit route for the Gulf and Malaysia. The trend has stopped since February after the Nepal government came down heavily on the illegal nexus operating the business. Every day, on average, about 200 Nepali men are still using the Indian route to reach the Gulf job market.

To control such undocumented migration, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have come up with motivational measures such as soft loans for intensive job training. Similarly, they have different social security schemes to help in education, housing, and accidents among others, for migrant workers. Such schemes have been developed through the contributions of the government and migrant workers themselves. Sri Lanka has the most efficient social security measures for migrant workers, among the South Asian countries. 

Based on the experience of other countries, it is best to govern migration that is to motivate people to use the formal migration process. Therefore, efforts at control would not stop undocumented migration, but force people to explore other illegal methods. It is best for South Asian countries to encourage people to use the formal migration process by reducing risks.


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